Lessons from the student divestment movement of the 1980s
by Lizzy Stephan, guest writer; photos from CC Special Collections
“Our investments entrench the repressive minority regime!” These words, in bold, are the focal point of a flyer that advertised a November 1986 rally outside of Armstrong Hall protesting Colorado College’s investments in South Africa during apartheid. The phrase embodies the sentiments of the divestment movement that targeted college and university endowments from the 1970s into the early 1990s. At the bottom, the flyer directs the CC community to the rally: “Display your disgust of CC’s involvement in South Africa. Bring friends!”
One in a series of student-led protests held at Colorado College in the 1980s, this rally was a manifestation of a national divestment movement targeting South Africa during apartheid that sought to prevent American funds from supporting the South African government. As campus investment movements here and across the country regain strength, I thought a look into CC’s past might help shed some light on the future of the movement. And on a personal level, I could think of no better way to end and commemorate four years of nerd-dom at this school than to spend my days in Special Collections, happily reading through student protest files while listening to some NPR federal budget reporting. (I’m not ashamed.)
Hundreds of campuses across the country experienced uprisings similar to the one at CC as the student divestment movement—a component of the antiapartheid movement of the 1960s and 1970s—added colleges and universities to a target list that already included major banks and corporations. In Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility, Sarah A. Soule explains that student antiapartheid activists narrowed their goals “from the very broad goal of ending apartheid, to the narrower goal of ending corporate investment in South Africa, to (eventually) the very specific goal of divestment by their own universities of holdings in corporations with ties to South Africa.” Those holdings were in college and university endowments. An endowment is like a college’s savings account—it is an investments fund that generates returns, which contribute to college operations. Student activists were quick to realize that schools had some degree of financial leverage, as colleges and universities collectively hold billions of dollars in their endowments—dollars that are invested in corporations whose brands we recognize before age five, and, apparently, dollars that supported corporate operations that contributed to apartheid enforcement. Caterpillar Company’s bulldozers, for example, were used to level the shanties of black South Africans, while IBM’s computers filled the offices of the country’s government agencies. According to a position paper released by the Colorado College Community Against Apartheid (CCCAA) in March 1987, the divestiture movement aimed “to convince the South African government that economic security and growth is dependent upon their initiating serious dialogue with legitimate Black leaders concerning the dismantling of apartheid and the implementation of power-sharing mechanisms.”
The 1986 CC rally flyer purported that U.S. companies with operations in South Africa under apartheid contributed taxes to its government and had to buy government bonds, which were often actually military bonds. It further stated that U.S. companies controlled 44 percent of the oil/petroleum industry in South Africa and 70 percent of its computer industry as well. CCCAA’s position paper cited the fact that Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and the largest non-white trade union in South Africa had all called for divestment. A London Times poll conducted in the country (complicated by the “illegality of [publicly] supporting disinvestment”) found that 70 percent of South African blacks supported divestment.
At the time, the Reagan Administration had a policy of “constructive engagement,” which was deemed a failure in 1987 by a panel that the administration itself had appointed to study the issue. In 1986, President Reagan vetoed economic sanctions against South Africa, a decision that the U.S. Senate then overrode in a 78-21 vote. Eighteen percent of U.S. companies withdrew from South Africa between 1984 and 1987; U.S. companies represented 20 percent of the direct foreign investment in the country during this time period.
The divestment movement took off on campuses across the country. Four undergraduates at Brown University conducted a nine-day hunger strike. Two hundred Smith College students occupied an administration building for six days. UC Berkeley’s student government decreed that the school’s computer stores could not purchase from companies doing business in South Africa, including IBM. Another two hundred University of Wisconsin students occupied the capitol in Madison demanding divestment, and students erected shanty towns on campuses across the country. By 1987, Soule writes, 21 states and 68 cities had some type of divestment policy, and 167 institutions of higher education had divested partially or in full between 1977 and 1989. Hampshire College (also the first to divest from Israel, in 2009) was the first to divest from South Africa, with Howard and Michigan State Universities joining shortly after.
Colorado College was not among the 167 that divested, but it was not for lack of effort on the part of student activists. The movement began to stir at CC in the late 1970s. An April 1978 Catalyst article by John Weiss entitled “CC-South Africa Connection Found” reported that CC’s investments in South Africa were worth more than 3.5 million dollars. According to Weiss’s article, CC was invested in 16 different corporations, among them Hewlett Packard, Exxon, G.E., Motorola, Mobil Oil, Citicorp, J.P. Morgan, and Eastman Kodak. The article also reports that CC was not voting on any of its proxy statements (the process in which shareholders of public companies vote annually on various resolutions regarding company operations), and that both Tufts and Harvard Universities had sold all of their Citicorp stock. Tufts President, Weiss reports, “told the Tufts Observer that the sale of the stock was in accordance with the university’s policy that forbids investments in corporations ‘if their normal practices are discriminatory.’” Weiss notes that CC alum and board member William Spencer (’39) was the President of Citicorp at that time.
The next month, CC’s student government passed a resolution in support of forming a Committee for Responsible Investing. CCCAA’s report states that at the meeting, professor Soloman Nkiwane “volunteered to answer questions of council members concerning the present situation in South Africa. He stated that the black South Africans are willing to accept temporary suffering (resulting from withdrawal of U.S. Investments) if it means an ultimate improvement in their situation.” The following month, the Board of Trustees endorsed the Sullivan Principles, a corporate code of conduct of sorts calling for non-segregation in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and the “initiation” of programs that would prepare blacks and other non-whites for administrative positions (among other provisions). These principles were intended to improve corporate practices in South Africa, so that the companies invested in the country could be positive forces for change.
Eight years later, in March of 1987, since-retired William Spencer announced to a crowd of protestors outside of Armstrong Hall that Colorado College would continue investing in companies that did business in South Africa. Arguing that divestment “could contribute to the weakening of the financial underpinnings of the college,” Spencer stated that the board would continue to invest in those companies backing the Sullivan Principles. The Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph (now the Gazette) reported on the board’s rationale for continuing their investments: “opposition to apartheid is consistent with continued investment; black and white moderates in South Africa who oppose apartheid also oppose divestment; divestment may contribute to a ‘revolutionary upheaval’ and ‘massive loss of life.’” Adding insult to injury, Spencer called the student protestors “single-minded” and the divestment debate at CC imbalanced.
By the late ‘80s, seven of the 42 companies in CC’s portfolio had operations in South Africa, and the board pointed to the Sullivan Principles as justification for maintaining those holdings. Ancel Martinez, the Gazette-Telegraph reporter who wrote the article on the board’s announcement, pointed out that the board’s announcement did not reference the fact “that the Reverend Leon Sullivan, who devised the principles, has vowed to withdraw any support of them by May 31 unless apartheid is abolished by then.” The CCCAA position paper emphasized the limited scope of those principles—they did not touch the apartheid structure itself.
Sociology professor Jeff Livesay was quoted in the Gazette-Telegraph article reacting to the board’s decision, calling it a “shameful moment in the history of Colorado College. The values of this institution are a sham.” The crowd tossed pennies at Spencer’s feet, meant to symbolize, as the Gazette-Telegraph reported, “their belief that the board made a purely financial decision, not one consistent with the philosophy of a liberal arts college.” The board adjourned for lunch at then-President Gresham Riley’s home, and protestors followed—sitting quietly outside as board members ate.
The board’s March 1987 decision to maintain its investments had come on the heels of a faculty vote (60-8) asking the board to divest, as well as the student government’s (10-1) vote to support the CCCAA. A pro-divestment rally had run through Friday night until the announcement of the decision on Saturday. Students had constructed shantytowns near Worner Center in November of 1986 (and several times after that), and held a teach-in during March 1987. Upon accepting their diplomas, 150 graduating seniors left cards on the stage stating that they would not donate to CC until it divested from South Africa. The administration was worried that the students would try something more radical, “and we kind of liked that,” explained alumnus Matt Case (’88), a central organizing member of the CCCAA group. He also said that students occupied the office directly outside of the President’s office, wearing tape over their mouths. It symbolized “that they weren’t listening to us,” he said. “Why talk if they aren’t listening?”
CCCAA was a very active organization on the CC campus before and after the board’s 1987 announcement. Members organized rallies, sit-ins, and educational events, issued position papers, wrote letters to local newspapers, and worked to secure meetings with college administrators. Many of their rallies took place during meetings of the Board of Trustees. Professor Livesay recalls several hundred students flooding Armstrong during a meeting, “jamming the stairwell” and singing protest songs outside of the President’s Office and the boardroom. Chaplain Bruce Coriell remembers a similar incident on his first day at CC in which students filled the stairs and hallways. The Board of Trustees meeting ended, and alumnus and Trustee Edith Gaylord Harper was accidentally knocked over by the moving crowd.
According to CC alumni Matt Case (’88), Stephanie Bryson (’89), and Doug Haller (’88), who were involved in CCCAA in the late ‘80s, a call from students at UC Santa Cruz provided the final catalyst for the mobilization on CC’s campus. Students were already organizing around the issue, but once students from Santa Cruz called to encourage the CC students, their movement began to take off. Bryson estimates that the core group members in CCCAA numbered between 30 and 60, though some of the rallies were attended by 200 to 300 people. They often worked in subcommittees, with some students working on the group’s public relations, and others planning the rallies. Case remembers it as very “democratic and inclusive” in its operations. Commenting on the group’s strategy, Bryson explained: “We tried to exhaust all of our administrative opportunities, before we resorted to . . . activities that could get us arrested.” She cites her involvement as one of the more meaningful experiences of her life.
CCCAA’s 1987 position paper acknowledged that the “isolated effect” of CC’s divestment “might appear to be negligible,” but emphasized that CC would be adding its voice to “the collective statement” made by colleges such as Carleton, Colby, Grinnel, Knox, Oberlin, Whitman, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Williams, Franklin & Marshall, Amherst, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, and Connecticut College, in addition to other schools, the U.S. Congress, 63 cities, and nine countries.
Their position paper clearly articulated their disappointment with Colorado College and their disgust in the face of its hypocrisy: “We are once again faced with glaring inconsistencies between the College’s investment policy and the values it is attempting to inculcate in its students. These inconsistencies inevitably undermine the College’s mission by breeding cynicism and apathy among the very students it is striving to empower. It is hard to reconcile the school’s values, which attempt to ‘inculcate in students an awareness of others, a feeling of mutual obligation’ (The President’s Report, 1985) with the fact that it makes money from the oppression of another people. Our request for divestment grows out of what this College has taught us—to take ethics seriously and to act in socially responsible ways.” The paper concludes with a call for full divestment “with all deliberate speed.” Case, a contributing author to the position paper, explained students’ frustration with Colorado College’s inconsistencies: “We were learning some important lessons about right and wrong [at CC], but when we applied that kind of yardstick to the school. [The school would say] no, no, don’t look at us.”
Bryson and Case both cited the importance of their sociology courses in spurring their activism. They were surrounded by other sociology majors committed to effecting social change, and received strategic guidance from several sociology professors, who had themselves been activists in the 1960s. Haller, Case, and Bryson all emphasized how close personal relationships were instrumental to their involvement in the movement. A close friendship with Teddy Mattera, a CC student from South Africa, was especially important for Case and Bryson. Teddy was involved in the CCCAA, and shared his perspective and read his poetry about South Africa at the rallies. Bryson explained that Teddy “would stand up and say, ‘this affects my family; this affects my friends. South Africa has asked us [to divest].’”
Case’s description of his motivations sound to me like the bottom line of it all: “The grass we’re walking on, the buildings we’re going in, the faculty salaries—they’re [paid] in blood money. You can’t get around that, there’s sort of an ethical reality that we are making money off of these businesses that are making money off that system over there. And that makes your skin crawl, for anyone who takes these things seriously.”
Bryson’s motivation to participate was similar: “To watch the South African government engage in an incredible amount of inhumanity and to know that my mother’s money, which she had very little of, was going to the college and funding these investments and these atrocities was really upsetting to me,” she explained. “What motivated me was kind of my burgeoning understanding that my mother’s money could actually, in this globalized world, affect people in really deleterious ways.” Doug, too, said that CC wasn’t really “walking the walk as much as just talking the talk [by] investing in companies that appear to take advantage of the inexpensive labor [of black South Africans].”
Professor Livesay played an advisory role to the CCCAA group and had led several of its members in an independent study course on South Africa. On his motivations for participation, he explained, “I wanted CC to align its values with its practices in investment, and I found these students [working in CCCAA] to be really an extraordinary community of bright, interesting, committed students. I guess I saw it as a really teachable moment, too, and saw my pedagogical role as extending outside the classroom.”
There were plenty of arguments against divestment, as well, though it appears that few were made on the CC campus by anyone other than the Board of Trustees. Those who opposed divestment argued that investments were a force for good in the country, that divestment was an ineffective strategy, that the financial risks of divestment for colleges was too great, and that colleges and universities should not get involved “politically” through their investments. A June 1988 statement from the CC Board of Trustees affirmed their belief in that last idea: “The Trustees believe, however, that the College can best serve its mission by avoiding partisan engagement in political causes. The College should not use its investment portfolio as a political tool.”
The CCCAA’s November 1989 letter to the Board of Trustees makes clear the group’s feelings on the political argument: “We would like you to know why we are fasting and living in shanties outside Worner Center. We believe that your most recent position on the issue of divestment—that to leave the college’s money in South Africa is not political, but to take it out is—is simply not true. South Africa right now is highly political. Any dealings with it are necessarily the same.” Their letter closes with an invitation for Board members to visit their shantytown.
Based on all that they had learned, Case and Bryson both fully believed that divestment was the best option. In response to arguments that divesting was bad for South Africa, Case pointed to calls for divestment from black South African leaders, including Nelson Mandela: “It’s their country, they know what’s best, there you go . . . It wasn’t just white kids dreaming this up, it was part of a strategy that emerged from South Africa. South Africans were asking the U.S. to demonstrate that we cared about something more than ourselves enough to do what we could . . . [even] if that meant one rally, if that meant just asking the college to disinvest. There was this kind of effort to diminish the importance of it at CC, [with administrators sort of saying] you’re just well-meaning kids in your twenties and you’ll understand one day.”
Professor Livesay, too, articulated his belief that divestment was the best strategy: “For me it was a pretty black and white issue, and it was also an issue that really spoke to the relationship between ethical matters and economic matters. And my sense was that the College, by attempting to have a purely pragmatic, returns-maximizing strategy, was not setting a good example for the students at the College—to the extent that we saw ourselves as attempting to instill values of democratic citizenship and ethical seriousness in our students.”
It was in July of 1988 that the Board of Trustees issued a new policy statement proclaiming that it would “divest selectively in those companies whose demonstrated performance contravenes the values of the college.” An All-College Committee on Selective Divestment was created to make recommendations in accordance with the new policy. Chaplain Bruce Coriell scoured college documents to determine what, exactly, constituted CC values. In the bylaws of the Board of Trustees, the Student and Faculty Handbooks, and the CC mission statement, he found commitments to the following values: basic human rights, anti-discrimination, non-harassment, value of diversity, and global and local community relations. In his values memo to the college, he concluded that “the high value we place on improved relationships with minority communities is threatened by our investment policies.”
Coriell recalled that the committee had a very difficult time getting a list of CC’s direct holdings. Of course, the committee could not recommend selective divestment from a company if it was kept in the dark about which companies CC even invested in. “Even when we were doing this work,” he told me, “I kept saying—as a kind of semi-humorous way to make the point of how slow we [at CC] were—that South Africa was going to abolish apartheid before we divest. And, in fact, it did.”
In 1990, the committee recommended to the board that the college divest from Caterpillar Company, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M), and Johnson & Johnson, based on violations of the determined Colorado College values. 3M, for example, sold its products to the South African government, including its hospitals, the Ministry of National Education, and its state-owned television network. “We were asking people to act in a way that is consistent with what we said was important as a college value,” Coriell explained.
When the Board of Trustees rejected the committee’s recommendations, Coriell resigned publicly from the committee, submitting his resignation letter not only to the Board and President Gresham Riley, but to the Catalyst as well. “This is not a proud chapter of CC’s history. I think there were lots of . . . people who worked really hard on it, people who really believed in it . . . but on the whole, we didn’t look very progressive both in coming late to the table in terms of the conversations and never finally getting anywhere on it.” The committee dissolved several years later.
Spurred in part by the College Sustainability Report Card, which has publicly embarrassed countless colleges and universities by bringing their investment practices to light, investment movements on campuses across the country seem to be gaining momentum once again. The movements are very different, but the basic sentiments are largely the same: campus community members at schools around the country, from Stanford to Haverford, are calling for the alignment of investments with college values. Committees on investor responsibility exist on many campuses to address investment issues. They vote on their college or university’s proxy statements, develop community investing programs (in which a college might move a portion of its money into a local, smaller bank to enrich the surrounding community), and work to encourage the adoption of socially responsible investment principles.
At CC, a group of students has been voting on the college’s proxies, evaluating our direct holdings for social responsibility, and, most recently, making recommendations to the Campus Sustainability Council for the investment of the newly established $10,000 CC Green Fund. The group’s leaders will be meeting with the Investment Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees on May 19th to present on their activities from this year. The group recently signed onto a letter, along with Wesleyan and Vassar College, that publicly announces the three committees’ intentions to vote positively on any shareholder resolutions calling upon corporations to disclose their political contributions.
Since many of our current options for socially responsible investing were not around during the time of the antiapartheid divestment movement, the conversation on our college’s values and how they should impact our investments has room to grow. Hopefully, the Sustainability Council’s movement does as well. They say that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, but I’m not sure what CC’s history of investment-related activism has taught me in terms of strategy. Students did the academic and educational legwork on the campus. They were very deliberate in all of their activities, and ran their operations responsibly and non-violently. Faculty and students alike expressed a desire for divestment, yet while colleges and universities across the country had divested, Colorado College did not follow suit. I can’t imagine how we could possibly improve upon the entirety of what the dedicated CCCAA activists did in their attempts to get CC to divest from South Africa. What does CC’s refusal to divest mean for our future? The times, of course, have changed, but we need more time to know just how much.
What I will hold onto is Professor Livesay’s response to my anxieties about the efficacy of the movement: “The struggle for justice has been going on for thousands of years and it will continue to go on. It has met many impediments and barriers and failures, but it has also met incredible successes, too. And this is just another chapter in that long, long story which will continue. It’s like passing the baton.”